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How embryos and cancer cells grow | 2020 Metcalf Prize winner: Melanie Eckersley-Maslin, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

February 10, 2021

Proteins which control the growth of cells in embryos could teach us how to stop the uncontrolled growth of cells that is the hallmark of cancer, thanks to work by molecular biologist Dr Melanie Eckersley-Maslin.

Vital to normal development in early life, these molecules may later play a role in the early stages of cancer or help it spread. If so, we could target them therapeutically and block or slow progression of the disease.

In recognition of her leadership in the field, Melanie has received one of two 2020 $55,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

Dr Melanie Eckersley-Maslin.

Credit: Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

After more than a decade studying stem cells in embryonic development, Melanie has just returned to Australia from the United Kingdom to lead a research group at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne. 

She is initially focusing on a pair of protein molecules – developmental pluripotency-associated 2 (Dppa2) and Dppa4 – that are linked with early development of different cell types. In most cases they fall silent once their work is complete. However, they can reappear later in life in some cancers.

“Cancers take on some of the features of early development and that’s been known, but how this works isn’t fully understood,” she says.

The secret could be in the role of Dppa2 and Dppa4. Healthy embryonic cell development is tightly controlled. Once the cell type is determined the cells themselves do not change.

“The heart will always stay the heart, it doesn't become the brain, despite the heart and brain cells having the same genetic sequence and the same DNA,” says Melanie.

“A lot of that control for the early embryo is deregulated in cancers and no one has really looked at that. I’m taking these lessons that I’ve learnt on how the embryo is tightly controlled to learn how in cancers it becomes uncontrolled and cancers can grow.

“These molecules appear scattered throughout cancers, but nobody knows what they’re doing there.”

Her hypothesis is that the ability of these molecules to promote changes in cells is reawakened in cancers.

“Cancer can be thought of as a loss of cell identity and cancers are very similar to early development,” she explains.

Melanie hopes to identify other molecules involved in the control of cell type determination as part of her research and therefore investigate other potential treatments for cancer.

Her new position is supported by Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, the Lorenzo and Pamela Galli Medical Research Trust and now the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

Merged image showing a colony of mouse embryonic stem cells fluorescently stained for Dppa2 in red, Dppa4 in green and DNA in blue. Credit: Melanie Eckersley-Maslin

The aim of the Metcalf Prizes is to support researchers at the crucial mid-career stage, where recognition and financial support can help them take their ideas to the next stage and attract further funding and collaboration partners. 

In late 2021, Melanie was awarded an $8 million Snow Medical Research Fellowship. Watch a video from Snow Medical about Melanie's research at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre:


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